Detective Ngaire Blakes is back on the case when a skeletonized murder victim is discovered - a crime that took place during the Springbok Tours of 1981. A period that pitted father against son, town against city, and police against protestors.
The third book in the Ngaire Blakes series, THE ONLY SECRET LEFT TO KEEP finds Blakes back in the police force (see my review of the second book: THE SECOND STAGE OF GRIEF for more), confronted by a very unusual case. The skeleton of a murder victim, found on a fireground, is eventually identified as a young African American, Sam Andie, who went missing around the time of the 1981 Springbok Tour of New Zealand.
In the first two novels in this series a fair amount of time has gone into setting up the character of Ngaire Blakes. A cop who suffers from PTSD she's been assaulted, left the force, solved a case that she was being framed in, and is now back on the force, with a baffling historical crime to solve. In this outing the concentration has moved away from the character back story and more towards the investigation - a promising sign that this series is going to continue to evolve and improve from the potential heralded in the first two novels.
The plot here is nicely complicated by a series of factors - the Springbok Tours in New Zealand (and Australia) were fraught times, accompanied by many protests, strong opinions for and against, and the potential for a protest to have been a catalyst for murder is highly feasible. As is the possibility that a young African American man, transplated from the States to New Zealand by his family, could have met with racial prejudice and violence. Further complicated by the double homicide conviction handed down to Sam's girlfriend in the same week that he disappeared.
Because there has been so much concentration of Ngaire Blakes in the earlier books there is always the possibility that this is a series that would work better if you started at the very beginning, although you can step into it at THE ONLY SECRET LEFT TO KEEP, accept that Blakes has some hefty baggage, and enjoy the novel as a police procedural / investigation in its own right. There's plenty to this plot, to Sam Andie himself, and to events around the time that he was murdered to keep a reader involved and occupied. Knowing a lot more about Blakes certainly means that you can see exactly how this series is progressing, and get a feeling for the way it keeps moving forward, adjusting the focus, and heading into very interesting territory indeed.
The Second Stage of Grief, Katherine Hayton
A false accusation. A brutal murder. Can Ngaire find a killer before he finds her?
Ngaire Blakes is trying to put her life back together. The ex-cop resigned from the police after a vicious assault left her battling PTSD. Dragged into a murder investigation, she’s shocked to discover that all the evidence points to her.
This is an embarrassingly overdue mention of the second novel in a series which is going from strength to strength. Apologies to the author, the delay is all my fault.
If you're not aware of the Ngaire Blakes series from New Zealand author Katherine Hayton then this is one that needs to go on the to be read pile. Starting out with THE THREE DEATHS OF MAGDALENE LYNTON, then this novel, THE SECOND STAGE OF GRIEF onto the third, which was longlisted in this year's Ngaio Marsh Awards, THE ONLY SECRET LEFT TO KEEP, this is a police procedural which is improving in leaps and bounds with every outing.
Centred around Ngaire Blakes, a Police Detective who in this novel has resigned from the force after a brutal assault has left her suffering from PTSD, Blake is a terrific character. Flawed and complex without being tediously complicated, Blakes is strong enough to take on the world on her own in THE SECOND STAGE OF GRIEF, after isolating herself from friends and colleagues, and running to her estranged father's remote hometown to hide. Only hiding never works, and somehow Blakes finds herself in the position of having to find a killer before a frame up gets her.
The procedural elements of these books work pretty well, and the plots are nicely twisty and tricky, but at the heart of it all is a great character study. Blakes is one of those characters that you can't help but like, even though you'd probably want to shake sense into her if it was real life. She's troubled, she's flawed, she's suffering and she's extremely real and absolutely believable. Setting or sense of place is slightly less important, and in THE SECOND STAGE OF GRIEF if nothing else, Blakes fleeing to her father's place gives the author an opportunity to give the reader a sense of the remoteness and rural nature of the areas that she's moving through.
There was potential in the first book that's been continued in this second outing. There are obvious hints here that Blakes police career is far from over though, and the third book deservedly won a place on the 2018 Ngaio Marsh Awards longlist. More on that next up.
See You in September, Charity Norman
Cassy blew a collective kiss at them. 'See you in September,' she said. A throwaway line. Just words, uttered casually by a young woman in a hurry. And then she'd gone.
It was supposed to be a short trip - a break in New Zealand before her best friend's wedding. But when Cassy waved goodbye to her parents, they never dreamed that it would be years before they'd see her again.
It's a scenario that plenty of families deal with every day. Teenager's off to spend their gap year travelling in far flung locations - in this case British backpacker Cassy heading to New Zealand with her boyfriend for a short break before returning to her best friend's wedding, study and a normal life. When Cassy gets to New Zealand, however, normality becomes a split with her boyfriend, a chance encounter with some very welcoming people in a van, and years away from home, a life in the midst of a cult in the beautiful, and isolated wilds, of New Zealand.
Research about the ways in which people are beguiled into cult life must have been done for SEE YOU IN SEPTEMBER, as the slip into the life is seamless and cleverly done. There are points where the reader is almost as bewitched as Cassy - the lifestyle is gentle, friendly and stress-less. The people are inviting, non-judgemental and seemingly blissfully happy with their living arrangements. It doesn't, initially, even feel like a cult - this is a community that's welcoming, enveloping and then it's controlling and threatening and very discomforting. But by that stage Cassy is embedded and her parents impotent from such a distance, desperate.
Vulnerable and controllable, Cassy's exactly the sort of young woman that you'd expect to be pulled into this scenario which makes this slightly less punchy than it should be - that and a tension arc that gets a bit bogged down at points with a tendency to belabour points that are pretty self-evident. Whilst this detracts a little from the pace and ultimate tension of SEE YOU IN SEPTEMBER, overall the novel makes up for that with a fascinating depiction of a young, vulnerable woman all too suspectible to an ideology of acceptance, the promise of a perfect life, happy to give no thought to the ease with which she might have found it.
Murder on Broadway, John Rosanowski
It's Broadway in Reefton, the new, booming 1870s gold town.
Suspiciously, Gordon Trembath, a naive young police constable has been left in charge over Christmas and New Year. He is immediately faced with investigating a murder carried out by sly-groggers in the valley.
In the meantime, the town has been invaded by "a collection of scamps, card sharps, liars and chats who have come to town for the pickings available in the holiday season."
Quirkly written tale of 1870's gold rush New Zealand, with more than enough parallels with local history to make this believable and entertaining reading. Central character Gordon Trembath, is a young, inexperienced police constable, stuck with being the only one on duty over the Christmas / New Year summer break. Whilst he's dealing with a murder executed by sly-groggers in the nearby valley, the town has been overrun with holiday petty crooks - card sharps, liars, cheats and scammers come to fleece the incoming holiday makers of anything they can get their hands on.
A crowded time in a young policeman's life, made even more complicated as the murder rate rises and the frontier side of the gold rush town becomes more and more apparent. A good little tale, told in a light-hearted manner with styling quirks that will work for some readers, and instantly annoy others, MURDER ON BROADWAY has a great sense of the timeframe, and setting, and provides a glimpse into some shared history between New Zealand and, in particular, this reader's part of Australia. If you're in the market for something a little bit different with that historical perspective, then it's worth having a look at.
Backcountry mystery outshone big city crime at WORD Christchurch Festival on Saturday evening as Alan Carter and Jennifer Lane were named the winners of the 2018 Ngaio Marsh Awards.
Killing is My Business, Adam Christopher
A blend of science fiction and stylish mystery noir featuring a robot detective: the stand alone sequel to Made to Kill.
Another golden morning in a seedy town, and a new memory tape for intrepid PI-turned-hitman--and last robot left in working order-- Raymond Electromatic. When his comrade-in-electronic-arms, Ada, assigns a new morning roster of clientele, Ray heads out into the LA sun, only to find that his skills might be a bit rustier than he expected....
Fans of MADE TO KILL will already know all about Ray Electromatic, Ada and his line of work. Set in the 1950s, KILLING IS MY BUSINESS is the second in the trilogy based around Ray Electromatic. Part crime fiction, part science fiction, Ray is a robot, Ada is his controlling computer, and together their business, is killing. The first novel MADE TO KILL readers were introduced to Ray, the last robot in America, who covers his hired assassin persona with a day job as a private detective.
The trick here is that Ada wipes Ray's memory (? banks) every night so and must therefore be reminded every day by Ada of ... well everything. In the first novel that was an interesting idea, a way of perhaps turning a robotic assassin into something more robotic, with no chance whatsoever to question his allocated profession. By the second novel, not only does it wear a bit thin as an idea, it's not nearly as well executed and there are more than a few "well how would he know that" moments - enough to make you think that the wiping appears to be opportunistically selective at least.
KILLING IS MY BUSINESS also has a convoluted idea at the centre of the plot - after a couple of hits go wrong, Ray takes on a job getting close to a mafia boss to learn his secrets before then killing him. Leaving aside the whole idea of Ray not knowing what he'd already gleaned if his memory was constantly being wiped, there's the question of why a mafia boss would get that close to a random private detective robot in the first place. Needless to say for a lot of this novel to work you're going to have to pack up those niggles and file them under "silly fun".
Having said that, for this reader the first novel was great fun, this one considerably less so. There's nothing wrong with the writing, nor the mismash of genre's. The fifties feel is spot on, the voices of the character perfect. It's just that the central pillars seem to be tilting.
Aukati, Michalia Arathimos
“There was Polly’s tokotoko on the ground. Carved and polished, with its eel head, the snout inlaid with pāua. Alexia picked it up and cracked it across the cop’s shoulders. She raised it again and hit and hit. She would stop this.”
Alexia is a law student escaping the Greek family that stifles her, and Isaiah is a young Māori returning home to find the family he’s lost. Cut loose from their own cultures, they have volunteered to help Isaiah’s Taranaki iwi get rid of the fracking that’s devastating their land and water.
Author Michalia Arathimos has Greek-New Zealand heritage which is strongly reflected in her novel AUKATI. Set in New Zealand, this is a crime novel based around the scourge that is fracking.
Featuring two main characters, Alexia, a law student with a controlling Greek family, and Isaiah, a young Maori man trying to reconnect with his own family. Cut loose from their backgrounds, and their cultures, they are drawn into the fight to protect Isaiah's Taranaki iwi from the devastation that the fracking is causing. As a protest march turns violent, and the group start to suspect an informant, everyone becomes tense, suspicious and wary.
A refreshingly new approach for a crime novel - the threat here is multi-faceted and the sense of dislocation strong. Descriptively written, it is steeped in sense of place and both cultures - using a liberal amount of Greek and Maori terminology to tell the tale. Perhaps a little too much, as readers from outside those communities are going to have to work hard to maintain understanding at points, as the insider speak is so dense concluding meaning will sometimes require effort.
Effort worth devoting if you're of a mind to persist as AUKATI explores consequences and disruption on all sorts of different levels - individually for each of the main characters and their families, within failing romantic and friend relationships, amongst the activist community as trust breaks down, and between activists and law enforcement, and pro-fracking proponents. It's a complicated mix that ebbs and flows naturally, that sparks friendship, resentment, and inter-generational tension, all contained within that insider speaker.
The Sound of Her Voice, Nathan Blackwell
For Detective Matt Buchanan, the world is a pretty sick place. He has probably been in the job too long, for one thing. And then there’s 14-year-old Samantha Coates, and the other unsolved murder cases. Those innocent girls he just can’t get out of his head. When Buchanan pursues some fresh leads, it soon becomes clear he’s on the trail of something big. As he pieces the horrific crimes together, Buchanan finds the very foundations of everything he once believed in start to crumble.
Cop-turned novelist, Nathan Blackwell (true identity hidden due to covert police operations) has written a debut novel, THE SOUND OF HER VOICE, which is intense, unsparing, realistic, brutal and will stay with the reader for a long time.
Every year the Ngaio Marsh awards for New Zealand crime fiction throw up an unexpected perspective, something brave and unusual that will set you back on your heels and make you think. For this reviewer, this year, that book was THE SOUND OF HER VOICE. In what's a combination of police procedural, and tragic police perspective, Detective Matt Buchanan has been in the job too long, and he's had a gut full of the nastiness of human nature. Unsolved murder cases haunt him, people being bastards haunt him, everything haunts him. He's bitter and he's well on the way to being twisted, and the murder of 14 year old Samantha Coates puts him on the trail of something big, and even nastier than he had even thought possible.
If you're a fan of crime fiction that glosses over reality, pulls punches, draws veils then THE SOUND OF HER VOICE isn't the book for you. This book is real to the point of "drag you down a back alley, whisper abuse in your ear and belt you over the head" real. It's also a book in which the central hero is flawed and tricky, a man surrounded by bad, with right on his side, and decisions to make. Every step of the way in Buchanan's head is an uncomfortable place. It's impossible to not empathise with a man dealing with all this crap on an hourly basis, it's even possible to understand some of the wrong moves he openly chooses to make. If it's possible to empathise with the end justifies the means, then this is a novel that gives the reader a lot of opportunity to go down that path, hotly pursuing Buchanan's own conclusions.
Obviously this is dark, unrelenting reading, and it's a debut. It's not a 100% pitch perfect, slick as, totally perfectly crafted piece of crime fiction, but then again I'm not sure any of that would have served this author's aims. What we have here is raw, full of realistic emotion, reactions and voices. It's as about as authentic a police perspective as you'd get, somehow managing to maintain it's essential Kiwiness, whilst exploring a descent that's probably all too real for law enforcement the world over.
The Therapy House, Julie Parsons
On Sundays peace was restored. He would lie down, dream and remember. He would enjoy. And later on the bell would ring. He would get up and walk downstairs. He would open the front door. And his life would come to an end . . .
Garda Inspector Michael McLoughlin is trying to enjoy his retirement – doing a bit of PI work on the side, meeting up with former colleagues, fixing up a grand old house in a genteel Dublin suburb near the sea.
Kiwi-Irish author Julie Parsons book THE THERAPY HOUSE is an intricate pscyhological observation, interweaving current day crime with Irish history to great effect.
Exploring history and crime in terms of it's impact on survivors and/or families and on society in general, THE THERAPY HOUSE is absorbing, chilling, intricate and beautifully written. At the heart of the novel, Garda Inspector Michael McLoughlin is attempting retirement, doing a bit of PI work on the side, but mostly restoring a beautiful old house in the Dublin suburbs - a house that turns out to have as complicated a past as McLoughlin himself. McLoughlin's father was murdered many years ago, supposedly getting in the way during an IRA robbery, an event that haunts him to this day, especially as the killers now have a high profile part to play in Irish politics and the peace process.
The house which plays a big part in keeping him grounded, safe and occupied, is known as "The Therapy House" because of its past use as a counselling and medical practice. In a further sign that history is never far away from him, next door lives John Hegarty, retired judge, having had a distinguished legal career and importantly, the son of Dan Hegarty, colleague of well known Irish independence figure Michael Collins. Until he is killed, and McLoughlin discovers his brutalised body. The family hire McLoughlin to look into Hegarty's background, although the agreement is part hiring, part bribing with the suggestion that there is something in that past that relates to the death of McLoughlin's father.
Needless to say, layering and interconnections are a big part of style of THE THERAPY HOUSE. Slowly and intricately dissecting those layers and connections is part of what makes this novel so absorbing, as is the way that readers are frequently left to draw conclusions, and answer many of the questions posited by the author. The pace is leisurely, the sense of place strong, and sense of culture all consuming. The way the past affects the current is elegantly done as well with everything - from the therapy house itself, the location, the Hegarty and McLoughlin families, Ireland's troubled background - blending together to create echoes and portents, guidance and regret.
In the end there's a lot of regret thoroughout this novel, there's a real sense that it doesn't matter sometimes how often we're given a chance to learn lessons, we're going to be too old to do anything about it by the time we remember them.
The Trials of Minnie Dean : a verse biography, Karen Zelas
Minnie Dean: the first – and only – woman to be hanged in New Zealand. Baby farmer and child murderer, or hardworking wife and mother, supporting her family by caring for unwanted children in a society that shunned her?
Karen Zelas explores the trials of Minnie Dean using a myriad of voices, including Dean’s own, from her childhood in Scotland to the gallows in Invercargill, 1895.
It is rare, but not unknown to encounter a crime fiction novel in verse. Dorothy Porter's written some of the best examples of this that I've been fortunate enough to read, but I think this might be the first biography of a true crime figure in verse I've come across. Equally beautifully written and wonderfully laid out on the page, THE TRIALS OF MINNIE DEAN is fascinating reading.
Minnie Dean 1872
an open face one
could say dark hair
drawn back nothing to hide
a little lace at throat & cuff
hands rest loose on bentwood back
gaze into the camera eyes
soft & open brow deep
sole adornment in her hair
staining face or dress
Minnie Dean, as the blurb explains, was the first and only woman to be hanged in New Zealand. Baby farmer and child murderer or hardworking wife and mother, supporting her family by caring for unwanted children in a society that shunned her?
The story of Minnie is told in a combination of verses, images, handwritten snippets, all of which have had particular attention paid to their layout on the page. It's a feast for the eyes, although given this combination it's obviously not an indepth exploration of all that could ever be said about Minnie Dean, her background and her alleged crimes. There is, however, more than enough here for the reader to consider - from Minnie's background and reactions, statements and reactions of the police involved in the investigation and trial, even a short snippet from the hangman and her descendants.
All the way through though there is Minnie's voice and it's desperately sad, and sometimes quite chilling.
that inquest made me
a social outcast a
there is no law
to stop me taking babies
to my heart & home
I may take as many
as I want charge
whatever fees I wish
& keep them
in the manner of my choosing
so long I don't neglect or mistreat
that is all
let them try and stop me
Eventually, obviously, they did stop her in the most final of ways. Not having previously heard of Minnie Dean I was interested to find a Wikipedia entry and some historical facts about her, suspicions about her activities, and the final events that lead to her trial and execution.
THE TRIALS OF MINNIE DEAN is a beautifully constructed, extremely thought-provoking and moving book. It is one that I've now revisited many times since my initial reading.